Digging into the fascination of foothill football | TheUnion.com

Digging into the fascination of foothill football

Much like many newcomers to western Nevada County, The Union intern Alex Wagner was a bit taken aback by this community’s interest in high school football.

All the talk of “Miner Magic” and “Bruin Fever” reminded her of H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” which chronicled the peculiar yet profound passion for prep football played in the west Texas town of Odessa.

Such a rabid fan following seemed quite quaint to Alex, who grew up in Davis, when she read Bissinger’s book. Little did she know that her internship would land her in the thick of such a scene right here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where many of those welcoming her to town suggested there’s no better place to be than sitting in the stands, under the lights of a fall Friday night.

And of course, considering she saw such a frenzy about football as a summer intern – one who arrived four full months before Bear River and Nevada Union were to actually play a game – might help explain her astonishment.

It also explains why she thought the subject to be worthy of a story.

I disagreed.

It deserves so much more.

And that’s why The Union today unveils an attempt at capturing, at the very least, bits and pieces of a culture cultivated by the committed kids who give their all and a community that champions those efforts each and every autumn. The result for our readers is a 12-part series to be published over the course of the next three weeks, discussing “The Tradition,” “The Community” and “The Teams” that have made high school football “The Game” of choice in western Nevada County.

We make no promises of encompassing every aspect of the 103-year history of foothill football in the area. There’s simply too much tradition to cover, something that became so clear in each return research trip to the Doris Foley or Searls libraries of Nevada City. And whether I was carefully handling cracked and yellowed copies of the “Stray Leaves” yearbook or squinting over what seemed to be miles of microfilmed newspaper pages, I thanked my lucky stars for one man: Martin “Keith” Marsh.

Marsh, as you may know, is the author of “The Yellowjackets: A History of Nevada City High School Football, 1901-1952.” And without him, our task of digging into the local gridiron history would have doubled. The only regret, of course, is that he hadn’t also compiled such an encyclopedia of information on the Grass Valley High football program.

How ’bout it Keith?

Is the “Fighting Miners” coming soon?

“I don’t think so,” said Marsh, a 1947 Nevada City alum who lined up as a 126-pound guard for two seasons as a Yellowjacket. “That was a six-year project. I spent a lot of time at the libraries. I also got out to other towns where we played, trying to find stories about (the Yellowjackets).”

He found everything he was looking for and more. Marsh’s book (available at The Book Seller in Grass Valley) not offers a complete record of every game played by Nevada City, as well as a complete roster of anyone who ever suited up in the “Gold and Purple,” but also includes 260 pages worth of stories, anecdotes and details that any former Yellowjacket – or fan – should own.

But perhaps the most telling piece authored by Marsh is on page one, when he describes his own first brush with the game. Though it came nearly 70 years ago, he recalled the moment with the clarity of an adolescent’s first kiss.

“We made our way along the eastern-most edge of the school grounds to a point where we could peek through the fence without attracting too much attention from within,” Marsh writes. “The game was very exciting from our worm’s eye-view, what with all the purple and gold color showing in the rooting section across the way, the band playing during time-outs, etc.

“Reviewing the data, I have concluded that the game must have been the ‘Jackets’ 7 to 7 tie with the Placer High varsity reserves in 1937, when I was eight years old! I thought at the time that it must be heaven to be old enough to play football for the Nevada City High School Yellowjackets!”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s easy to imagine a wide-eyed, 8-year-old Junior Bruin or Junior Miner saying such a thing today, wishing to one day wear the Cardinal and Gray of Bear River or the Navy and Gold of Nevada Union.

It’s The Tradition that drives them.

It’s The Community that supports them.

And it’s the success of The Teams that completes the circle.

All of the above, of course, come together each fall under the Friday Night Lights to make “The Game” what it is: As good as gold to foothill football fans.


Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. He may be reached via e-mail at brianh@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4240.

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